The Video Provocations of Ulysses Jenkins
by Tiana Reid
Ulysses Jenkins is an artist of extremes, an innovator who has probed the limits of a wide range of aesthetic modes for over five decades. Though he’s best known for his video art, a medium whose conventions he has been instrumental in defining since the 1970s, he has also produced documentaries, performances, public broadcasts, paintings, murals, and writings. Through these various forms, he has sustained an incisive critique of Black representation in mass-produced media, returning frequently over his long career to the themes of pop culture, gender, and global capitalism with a sense of playfulness that bends time and space.
Central to Jenkins’s methodology is what he calls “doggerel” (sometimes spelled “doggereal”), a set of strategies through which “metaphors expand and ask questions of themselves and ourselves,” as he wrote in 1985. Named after a literary term for silly poetry with irregular rhythm and rhyme, Jenkins’s doggerel encompasses elements of comedy, absurdist performance, surrealism, dadaism, collage, montage, and technological disruption. The concept codifies his experimental practice and his emphasis on ritual and nonlinear forms; it is also, as curator Meg Onli notes, a response to the possibilities and limitations of video itself. Using and abusing the medium’s playback technology and portability, features that gave it the semblance of being a uniquely democratic format, Jenkins sets out to track the frenzied order of our modern visual culture. At the same time, he chronicles a specifically Black psychic response to that order, whose effects are so pervasive that the racial alienation at its heart can be difficult to grasp.
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